Riddle us this: What is frequent, natural, and affects over half the world population and is yet completely ignored by society? Menstruation. The M word, (for menstruation or mahavari in Hindi) has long been stigmatized in our vocabulary and society. It is not a topic considered suitable for polite conversations. The stigma and sociocultural norms around menstruation and menstrual hygiene in India violate and impact several human rights, including, but not limited to the right to human dignity, right to equality, bodily integrity, health, privacy, and the right to freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment from abuse and violence.
Beware the monthly monster: Menstruation and social stigma in India
It’s time to break the silence and talk about periods. Most of the social stigmas come from a lack of awareness. In India, women on their periods are considered impure, dirty, or unclean. The Furore that ensued in the wake of the contentious Sabrimala Judgement goes to show that the ‘unclean’ image of women of menstruating ages is still prevalent and widely accepted in pockets of India. Women are not allowed to pray, cook, or serve food or water, during their periods. In rural India, often women are required to sleep alone or away from other family members and some parts of India also practice the tradition of chaupadi or their own iteration of it.
These stigmas also lead to the unavailability of adequate sanitation in many parts of the country, which leads to the usage of cloth pieces, mud, leaves, etc., which pose obvious risks to their health.
Menstruation and Women’s Participation in the Economy
Taboos around the menstrual and sexual health of women also affect women’s contribution to the economy. The topic is more pertinent in India, which ranks as the third worst nation in Asia for gender equality.
The issue of menstrual hygiene goes deeper than which sanitary products are used. Clean infrastructure also matters. The lack of infrastructure leads to girls dropping out of school when they start menstruating, especially in rural India. Women are forced to cover long distances to change their pads due to the lack of women’s toilets with proper locks on them. In rural India, a working woman needs to take 5 days of leave per month on average. If the woman is a day laborer or farm worker who receives wages for work per day, she loses out around a quarter of her monthly earnings.
Menstrual Hygiene and Women’s Health
Additionally, 70% of all reproductive diseases in India were caused by poor menstrual health, which also affects maternal mortality rate and cervical cancer rate. According to the WHO, India accounts for 27 percent of the world’s cervical cancer deaths. The incidence rate there is almost twice the global average and doctors studying the disease believe poor menstrual hygiene is partly to blame. The homespun ‘solutions’ or home-sewn cloth pads raise the risk of vaginal infections that suppress the reproductive tract’s natural defenses. A weaker immune response can compromise the body’s ability to fight the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, the microbial cause of most cervical cancers.
Menstrual Waste Management
When discussing the issue of menstrual hygiene, we must also consider disposal, waste management, and the impact on the environment. The choice of absorbents varies among rural and urban women and girls, depending on personal choice, cultural acceptability, economic status, and availability in the local market. In rural areas, the most preferred sanitary products are reusable cloth pads, and in urban areas, women prefer to use commercial sanitary pads. It must be pointed out that the adhesive wings and perforated plastic layers on a disposable sanitary napkin are not biodegradable and may take up to 800 years to decompose. For deodorized sanitary products, chemicals used in bleaching such as organochlorines, tend to disturb the soil and microflora and take longer to decompose. It is estimated that each woman will generate 125-150 kgs of sanitary waste in her lifetime. That is over 108,000 tonnes of menstrual waste a year in India.
It’s Time for Action
The theme of Menstrual Hygiene Day 2019—It’s Time for Action—not only emphasizes the urgency of this public health and environmental issue but also highlights the transformative power of improved menstrual hygiene.
There are various things that can be done at an individual, organizational, local, and national level to educate the masses on menstrual hygiene issues:
Sex education in schools with courses on menstrual health, hygiene, disposal, and waste management.
Talk about the issues openly, break the taboo, and increase access to sanitary products for women.
Include men in the conversations, as part of society men must also understand and see the value in investing in sanitary products and infrastructure;
Switch to more environment-friendly sanitary products such as menstrual cups or cloth pads and spread information about their safe and hygienic use;
Promote the development of sanitary infrastructure in your local municipality and surrounding areas such as toilets with adequate plumbing, water facilities, and proper locks; and
Encourage government-level policies to ensure that companies manufacturing sanitary products should disclose information regarding the chemical composition of the pads, so that appropriate technology could be used for their disposal and treatment.